Many people believe that the richest 10 percent are significantly smarter or more hard-working than people less wealthy than them. This is particularly prevalent among opinions of the ultra-rich, where some look to billionaires for guidance in all walks of life. But are they actually more intelligent than the rest of us?
A new study suggests the answer is no: the elite may actually be just like us when it comes to intelligence, though there is some correlation between success and intelligence before you reach the big leagues. According to a study of almost 60,000 men, there is a strong relationship between intelligence and wage until it reaches above €60,000 ($64,000) a year, where the correlation becomes almost negligible. Strikingly, those in the top 1 percent were found to be potentially less smart than those close behind them, indicating ultra-success could be due to something different entirely.
Previous literature has linked intelligence with economic success but hasn't considered the relative ability of top earners. The researchers sought to explore this by looking at data taken from Swedish military conscripts, who had cognitive scores and labor information available. In total, almost 59,400 men around the age of 40 were followed using 11 years' worth of labor market data, as well as a series of cognitive, physical, and psychological test scores taken when they were younger. These tests were compared against their wages and job “prestige” between ages 35—45 to look for any links.
The results showed an expected increase in wage and prestige as cognitive ability rose, but then a plateau as the wages reached the top end. At €60,000 a year, there ceased to be any differences in ability between those earning above and below it, and intelligence did not increase above 70 prestige (doctors, lawyers, etc.). They also found the top 1 percent scored slightly worse on cognitive ability tests than those in the income level beneath them.
This suggests that while greater intelligence may help push a person into the higher brackets, when it comes to ultimate monetary success, it likely plays little part and those earning extremely high wages may actually be less smart.
The study is limited in a number of ways, particularly in the lack of diversity in the sample. Limiting the analysis to only men lessens how well the results can be translated to the wider population, and the authors welcome further research with more diverse samples.
Still, if you’re looking for real intellectual role models, don’t necessarily use money as a guide, as you may actually be looking up to someone less intelligent than you.
The study was published in European Sociological Review.